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P&Z questions delay action on Kemper-Gunn lease

Published 7:26 am, Friday, July 11, 2014

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  • Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Chip Stephens (right) raises an issue during Thursday night's commission meeting in Town Hall concerning the Kemper-Gunn House lease. To his left is commission member, Alfred Gratrix, Jr. Photo: Anne M. Amato / westport news
    Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Chip Stephens (right) raises an issue during Thursday night's commission meeting in Town Hall concerning the Kemper-Gunn House lease. To his left is commission member, Alfred Gratrix, Jr. Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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Even though the proposed lease for the Kemper-Gunn House was conditionally approved by the Board of Finance, the Planning and Zoning Commission refused to sign off on the deal Thursday night.

Instead, the P&Z, in a 6-1 vote, decided to postpone action on rental arrangements for the historic house until its meeting next Thursday.

The decision came after about an hour of discussion that followed a presentation by Selectman Helen Garten, who also is the chairwoman of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Committee. Garten's presentation on details of the proposed 98-year lease agreement to the P&Z came a night after the finance board granted its conditional approval -- subject to renegotiation by the selectmen -- for the pact.

P&Z members felt some language in the lease agreement between the town, which will be the landlord, and DC Kemper-Gunn LLC, the tenant, should be modified before they would on the contract.

"We are not here to dot the I's and cross the T's," said Chip Stephens, the P&Z chairman.

"But as planners we have to be comfortable with this -- that it won't change in a year or five or seven, and the town is left with an albatross," Stephens added. "We want a solid base here. We want to make sure the property doesn't end up rotting in the parking lot."

Plans call for relocating the historic Queen Anne-era house on Church Lane to the town-owned Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street, where it will be renovated for commercial and office use. Its original site will be incorporated into the multi-use development called Bedford Square, set to rise on the property of the Westport Weston Family Y.

One of the issues zoners agreed should be addressed in the lease is inclusion of a "general provision" that requires any changes to the property are "subject to zoning regulations."

Despite agreement from Garten and project developer David Waldman that the issues would be addressed and the lease should be modified, P&Z member Cathy Walsh said she wanted to see the final version before taking any action. Stephens then suggested the hearing remain open until the commission meets next Thursday.

But the town's recently appointed director of operations, Dewey Loselle, said if a vote were delayed until next week, a deadline to have the project approved in August by the Board of Selectmen might be missed.

"You should have thought about that before you presented it to us," said Stephens.

Loselle said the finance board had similar questions but, nevertheless, conditionally approved the lease agreement.

"That's the Board of Finance and this is the P&Z," Stephens told Loselle. "Thanks for your comments."

Waldman also asked the P&Z not continue its review and to vote Thursday night.

But commission member Alan Hodge said he saw no harm in keeping the hearing open until next week. "There's nothing for you to fear," he told Waldman. "But there is a level of discomfort here."

Commission member David Lessing cast the only dissenting vote.

Outside the Town Hall auditorium, where the meeting took place, Garten said she felt the P&Z was "very engaged and asked interesting questions" She added she has "no problem" with the commission's decision and that the lease modifications would be completed by next week's meeting.